Are you interested in stress management?
To begin this conversation, we need to start with the concept of perceived stress. Perceived stress refers to feelings or thoughts that an individual has about how much stress they are under at given point. It encompasses the feeling of lack of control about a situation. One goes through perceived stress when they feel they lack the ability to handle a certain situation (Seyl, 1959). Stress and perceived stress are different. While one is a reaction to an event that is thought of as a threat, the other is a thought or feeling. An individual may suffer the same negative situation in their life but how they appraise the situation depends on the ability and resources they have to handle the situation. In their book: Stress, Control and Behavior, Lazarus and Folkman suggested that how an individual copes with stress depends on his appraisal of the stressor. (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).
In 1983 Cohen invented the perceived stress scale that measures the perceived stress levels in an individual. Prior to this, stress was measured on the basis of objective stressors. This overlooked the subject’s interpretation of the stressor (Cohen, 1983). This 2-dimensional scale contains negative and positive items. The items are divided into positive and negative items which help analyze the degree of perceived stress. Most negatively phrased items perceive helplessness while positive items characterize self-efficacy. The perceived stress scale has over the time become a very important psychological tool in stress management.
Theoretically, the concept that the perception of stress affects one’s health has been supported by many researchers. Research has also shown that people exposed to perceived stress tend to be susceptible to diseases such as hypertension, hyper coagulation. Perceived stress also affects an individual’s socialization. People experiencing this phenomenon tend to be socially withdrawn due to self-doubt and general stress. Extreme perceived stress has also been shown to cause suicide.
Perceived stress has several triggers. These triggers are both internal and external. External triggers are those found in the environment of the individual. This includes lack of resources to handle a situation, pressure from society and major life events like death. Impending catastrophes also cause perceived stress due to the uncertainty associated with such events. Lack of self-belief, prior negative interaction with an event also causes perceived stress. Generally being uncertain about an event is a trigger of perceived stress.
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Scientists have come up with ways of coping with perceived stress. For instance, Sigmund Freud suggests that humor is an excellent coping mechanism. (Snyder, 2001). This refers to stepping out of a stressful situation to get a better perspective or a comic relief from a stressful situation. Another coping mechanism is Affiliation. This refers to reaching to a social group for moral support. This however does not relieve an individual of the obligation of handling the situation. Other coping mechanisms include anticipation, self-appraisal, positivity and self-observations.
Not all stress is detrimental to our health. Two variations have been identified. The first is called eustress. This type is actually beneficial. It is just uncomfortable enough to draw attention to something that may need to be modified and is a motivating factor that leads to positive change. It is a desire to change or improve upon the present situation. An example might be knowing an upcoming exam will be challenging and devoting extra time to studying. Eustress is not so intolerable that it is paralyzing, or physiologically harmful. A person experiencing eustress may feel confident that he or she has the ability and resources to handle a situation, may have successfully navigated similar challenges, and may have a more accurate perspective of the importance of the event in the longer term. Generally, complete comfort and lack of desire for any change also precludes the opportunity for growth.
Distress is the term used for stress that goes beyond any motivating or purposeful features. It may be experienced as physical symptoms such as increased heart rate and respiration, or insomnia. It may reduce productivity and inhibit achievement of goals due to excessive worry about failure or avoidance of attempts at change based on the perception that one is not competent to manage a particular situation. Distress warrants some intervention aimed at reducing discomfort to a level that allows a person to gain realistic view of the situation and recognize and evaluate options. Often a small shift in perception can switch a distressful experience into one that becomes a potential opportunity. This can be accomplished through mindfulness and conscious regulation of physical activities. Social support, conversation, or independent learning may provide additional insight. Social support includes non-human relationships. The presence of domestic pets or wildlife can be very therapeutic. Many find that seeking assistance from a health care professional is often helpful. Non-verbal environmental changes can also offer a change in perspective. Spending time outdoors, creative expression through visual art or performing art, or playing a new genre of music are all simple and natural means for creating a change is stress level.
Perceived stress is a serious psychological issue that cannot be overlooked. It may adversely affect an individual’s life. A lot of care should be taken in handling individuals experiencing this. It however can be regulated so to prevent extreme situations.
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- Cohen, S., Kamarck, T., & Mermelstein, R. (1983). A global measure of perceived stress. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 386-396.
- Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (n.d.). Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. Amazon press.
- Selye, H. (1959). Stress and disease. Science, 625–631.
- Synder C.R, H. M. (2001). Coping with Stress. New York: Oxford University Press
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